What If?!

Scott Heiman — 1 October 2020
It’s far better to know how to respond to the unexpected well before ‘What If?’ becomes ‘What Now?’

Australia’s first colonial road was two short kilometres from Governor Philip’s Sydney residence to Dawes Battery. Since then, the nation’s road network has grown to a whopping 817,000km. Indeed, Highway One, which circumnavigates the country, is the longest national highway in the world, with a length of 14,500km. That’s quite a lap! With massive stretches of road like the Eyre Highway extending in a straight line over 140km of featureless plain — and the notorious Bruce Highway spanning over 1600km with a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous highways and coined the ‘Highway of Shame’ — mishaps on the road are inevitable. 

Knowing this, are you really prepared for your next road trip? Are you prepared for the ‘What If?!’ Whether our travel plans are modest or massive, when we roll our rigs out of the driveway we need to plan for the worst — and hope for the best — because safety is no accident. 

Consider these scenarios. What if you’re driving along the Bruce Highway and an accident occurs in front of you? Can you provide First Aid? 

Fortunately, there’s probably plenty of other traffic around and mobile phone coverage is pretty good around there. So, it’s likely professional help would reach the accident scene in good time.

But, then again, what if you’re travelling on the back roads and it’s your vehicle involved in the accident? What if the accident causes serious injury to you or your loved ones? What then? It could be a long while before someone comes to your aid, particularly if you’re outside of telecommunications range.

If you think your phone coverage is adequate for the job, think again. Certainly Telstra claims to cover 99 per cent of the population and Optus’s 3G and 4G mobile networks are said to cover 98.5 per cent of the population. These figures sound pretty re-assuring, until you consider telecommunications coverage from the perspective of geography rather than numbers of people. 

After all, the Australian land mass is a huge 7.692 million square kilometres. But Telstra’s reach is only around 2.5 million square kilometres, while Optus claims network coverage of around 1.5 million square kilometres. So that could leave up to six million square kilometres of silence.


Things like these are what make back-up communications so important. CB radios have been the backbone of communications in the outback for years. But did you know that Channels 5 and 35 are strictly reserved by law for use as emergency communications? 

Meanwhile, Channel 10 is typically used by 4WD clubs or convoys and in national parks. Channel 18 is the ‘Caravanners and Campers Convoy Channel’. Channel 40 is the Australia-wide road safety channel — think truckies and oversized load pilots. Having these numbers written down and stuck to your CB handle could come in very useful when things go wrong on your trip.

Remember, too, that modern technology has made available various other communication options for recreational travellers; from satellite phones, Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND) and Personal Locating Beacons (PLB). 

For our money, a PLB is your best beacon buddy when the chips are down. Let us explain why.

SEND devices use commercial communication satellite systems rather than the dedicated Search and Rescue (COSPAS-SARSAT) satellite system. They also operate through ongoing contracts that need renewing. Forget to pay between trips and the ‘cavalry’ will stay in the stable when you call for help. Also, these units will need to be recharged or have their batteries replaced regularly. 

A PLB will get you out of trouble more reliably. This system simply has more satellites in the air, and there is a worldwide network of government authorities dedicated to respond when you activate your device. This means there are no ongoing commercial contracts to worry about. PLBs are also cheaper to purchase and they have a battery life of up to 10 years. 

If you are cashed-up, get one of each but keep the PLB in reach.


Some emergency situations start on a slow burn but can quickly grow into one hell of an inferno. Poets will wax lyrical about our country’s rugged beauty but are also quick to acknowledge its harshness and capacity to become life threatening in a flash. 

Which is why more than one of your travel party need to be trained in First aid, in case the First aider is the one requiring assistance. That applies to driver training, experience using the winch, the CB, the tourniquet, the PLB, the fire extinguisher or even packing up camp solo.

Consider ‘Chaos Theory’ for a moment. This delicious contradiction is the science of predicting the behaviour of inherently unpredictable systems. Within this theory is something known as the ‘butterfly effect’. This is the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. 

This concept is imagined through a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the planet, and the combination of flow-on effects creating a storm on the opposite side of the world.

Consider the situation where you’re enjoying the sunshine in one location, but 500km away it’s raining cats and dogs. The next minute, flash flooding has happened in the river right next to you which, only a few moments ago, you were planning to cross on the way to your next destination. It’s also why you don’t camp in dry river beds regardless of the shade.

The point here is that you need to plan for delays. Never eat and drink your stocks down so far that you find yourself saying, “It’s OK, we’re leaving in the morning and we’ll resupply on the road tomorrow”. Why? Because tonight a widow-maker might drop down onto your tow-tug and you’ll be going nowhere. Or perhaps your track will be blocked by a fallen tree.

If you make a habit of asking yourself ‘What If?!’, you’ll find yourself topping up supplies progressively as you travel and ensuring that you always have three days' spare food and water. And if you really want to be prepared, always carry a 20L jerry can of water in reserve. Similarly, stash a bag of rice and flour, along with some sugar and salt, and a few satchels of cup-a-soup — call them your ‘War Stocks’ for when everything goes pear-shaped.


Can you remember the time you went for a quick drive, stopped at a local ATM for some cash but the machine was down? Lucky you had a habit of tucking a $50 note in your wallet. Or how about the time Nanna pulled a Band-Aid out of her purse to deal with a grazed knee? The termed used for the collection of useful things consistently carried on a person is the ‘Every Day Carry’ (EDC). 

Common examples are your wallet, keys, glasses and phone, but there’s no need to stop there. The ‘preppers’ and ‘survivalists’ among us take our EDCs to the next level. So, at the very least, we’ll routinely have a multi-tool, knife, torch, and other essentials that will assist us in emergency scenarios. 

As overlanders, we’re more susceptible to emergency scenarios than many others. So your ‘What If’ planning may see you carrying a snake bite kit, boiled lollies (for the diabetic in your travel group), antihistamines (because one of you has known allergies), CPR mask on a key chain — the list goes on. On a bad day, something as simple as a small backpack, belt rig — or even Nanna's handbag — could make all the difference. 


Defensive driving is essentially all about the what if. As a defensive driver, your aim is to reduce the risk of collision by anticipating dangerous situations, regardless of unfamiliar or adverse driving conditions, or mistakes of others. Here are a few tips to help you deal with the unexpected on the road:

Stay focused. Driving is primarily a thinking task, and you have a lot of things to think about when you're behind the wheel — road conditions, your speed and position, observing traffic laws, signs, signals, road markings, following directions, being aware of the cars around you, checking your mirrors. The list goes on so cut out the distractions. Staying focused on driving, and only driving, is critical to safe driving. As Jim Morrison from The Doors would say, "keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel".

Animal strike. When driving on a highway, pay attention to the road signs that alert you to known dangers, including high animal populations. Adjust your speed and be prepared to stop if it’s safe to do so. Keep your hands on the steering wheel and brake firmly. If it isn’t safe to stop, pump the brakes to slow down and continue on your line. Avoid swerving to dodge animals as you may end up hitting an oncoming vehicle or a roadside tree. 

Three–four second rule. Leaving a safe breaking distance between you and the vehicle ahead is a no-brainer. So observe the vehicle in front as it passes a guide post and then count one thousand, two thousand, etc. until you pass the same object. As a rule of thumb (in normal traffic and good weather conditions) you need to reach at least three thousand to give yourself adequate time to brake and stop if necessary. Add another second if you’re towing, another for bad weather, and another for night time driving. 

Indicate early. Indicate your intentions early so other drivers can anticipate your next move. Particularly when you’re towing, your rig can be up to 13m long with blind spots large enough to hide an entire vehicle. While it’s not in the learner’s manual anymore, ‘back in the day’ we were advised to indicate at least 30m before turning and let our indicator flash no less than three times before following our intention to merge. This still sounds like sound practice to us. 

Pay attention. This means being situationally aware of everything that’s around you. Check your mirrors frequently and scan conditions 20–30 seconds ahead of you. Keep your eyes moving. If you stare doggedly straight ahead, you’ll increase your risk of drowsiness. Assume that everything and everyone is a threat, because they are. Plan your movements anticipating the worst-case scenario.


Take all these precautions and your days on the road should run smoothly. If not, at least you’ll have been prepared to respond appropriately. Then all you’ll have left to do is kick back in your favourite chair with your feet up. 

Or maybe not.

Even around camp, there are lots of potential hazards. If you’re travelling with little tackers, place physical barriers around open flames and other obvious dangers until they learn better. Gas bottles can explode, and faulty wiring can spark fire. So maintain your gas bottle leads and seals and keep wiring up to spec. Axes can cut toes and foxes and possums love to go through bins. So put the axe away when you’re finished with it and wear appropriate footwear when you’re using it. As for the wildlife, put your rubbish in a sealed container like a spare wheel bin or a collapsible esky.

While some of these measures may sound onerous, they aren’t. Not when you consider the gravity of the risks they aim to avoid. Adopt a ‘What If?!’ attitude to life and you’ll soon find it becomes second nature and your situational awareness will improve. 

Best of all, you’ll spend more time on the road and less time in hospital. That’s more time cruisin’ and less time bruisin’. 


Features What if Safety On the road Being prepared


Scott Heiman